I was reading an article online the other day on the subject of financial wellbeing, when a particular section, a statement, caught my eye. My attention was piqued for two fundamentally opposing reasons. The first was that the statement made was only partly true, meaning that there was a more important untruth lurking within those words.
The statement that has caused me to put pen to paper (or more correctly, fingers to keyboard) was the suggestion that people “worrying about money is normal and healthy”. Let me explain why, with financial wellbeing front of mind, this isn’t accurate.
THE ACCURATE PART
Mental health research has shown that a degree of stress is good for you. If we don’t introduce a little stress into our lives now and again, things can become dull and boring, which in turn can put us on the path towards becoming depressed. Too much stress and we can quickly become anxious, which as we know, can lead to all sorts of ailments, including chronic ill-health.
The trick is to introduce the right amount of stress so that we can feel alive, be alert, behave in an optimal manner and all whilst still feeling like we’re in control. So, a little stress can be a good thing.
THE INACCURATE PART
The first part of the statement – suggesting that worrying about money is normal – is absolutely true. An abundance of independent and academically led research has shown money to be one of, if not THE biggest stressor in our lives. We think and worry about it a lot! But to suggest that worrying about money is healthy, is inaccurate, for many reasons. Let’s look at them one at a time.
The Physiological reason: Worry is the precursor to anxiety and panic. When we start to worry, our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is triggered. This is the body’s survival mechanism kicking in and has been with us since the day we climbed down from living in trees. It’s what we know as fight or flight, and was a useful tool when we had to fight off predators early in our evolutionary story. Although we don’t have to worry about being chased by a lion across a savannah anymore (most of us!), modern day threats continue to trigger the same response, with money becoming the modern day equivalent of a ravenous lion charging after us.
The problem is, our SNS is physically draining. It takes a vast amount of effort to prepare us to fight or run, and the more our SNS is triggered, the more it starts to impair crucial body functions, such as our immune system. That’s never going to be a good thing.
Worry, be anxious, panic, or stress on a consistent level, and it will take its toll on your body and your mind, and you will end up making yourself very unwell indeed.
The Decision-Making reason: To prepare us for fight or flight, the SNS turns off several body functions, including preventing the brain’s prefrontal cortex from functioning fully. The prefrontal cortex is where problem solving, planning, decision-making, and impulse control all happen, so you can imagine the issues caused by the SNS inhibiting a crucial part of our brain during times of worry. The fact is, during times of worry or anxiety, when our prefrontal cortex is being inhibited, we naturally become more impulsive and driven by our evolutionary survival mechanism. This means that when we act, we act with speed and we act with purpose. It’s all about putting in action a choice that will bring about relief from the stress, and many times, this sees us making decisions that may not, in hindsight, make sense, or may not be in our best long-term interests.
The Societal Reason: All of us are raised within a societal framework where there are many stigmas to deal with. Lack of money or not being good with money are high up on that stigma list. This means that when we run into money troubles we tend not to talk about it with anyone. This can even include, and often does, those nearest and dearest to us. Instead, we bottle it all up, and find it incredibly difficult to ask for help (another stigma). This means that many of us never talk about our money issues. One of the reasons people give as to why they don’t want to talk to others about their money issues is shame; a feeling so emotionally charged, that we try and avoid it as much as we can. And so the more we keep things inside in order to avoid the shame, and the more we allow our problems to fester, the more we become worried, stressed, and anxious. The more our money troubles remain, the more we feel shameful. And so the vicious cycle of damaging internal conflict continues.
The biggest problem reason: Finally, we have to address the biggest problem of them all and that is what happens if we continually worry about money, taking everything above into account. Our financial wellbeing is fundamentally linked to our overall wellbeing, and being stressed or worried about money, can lead to high states of anxiety and even depression. In fact, there is evidence to show that significant financial strain can not only lead to increased depression, but can lead to an increase in suicidal tendencies. A survey by Motley Fool in the US (2019) found that those with at least $1,000 of debt showed lower levels of happiness, fulfilment, and self-esteem. 38% of people tested said they struggled to sleep well (I won’t go into what lack of sleep can do to the body and our cognitive abilities, but needless to say, it is not good!), whilst almost half of them said their money troubles impacted their optimism. Almost all, 97% of respondents said that not worrying about debt would make them a happier person.
And so you see… worrying about money could never be a good thing. Yes, a small amount of stress can be good for us, and if that triggers a ‘save more money’ or ‘get myself out of debt’ response, then great. But to say it’s a good thing could actually give people permission to continue with the status quo, never get out of debt, or worse still, never ask for help. It could end up trivialising, or normalising, a fundamental ingredient, a core component, in our mental health story, and it could end up leading people to the complete opposite of financial wellbeing.
Living a life that is 100% worry free is a pipe-dream. That will never happen. The beauty of being a human means we continually tell ourselves stories and create situations where we can willingly introduce worry and stress. But if money is causing people to worry, and it’s causing them to worry consistently, that’s not good, and we need to work harder to make sure that in our conversations, in the words we write, we don’t normalise or trivialise this. But, most importantly, we need to work harder to let people know that asking for help is absolutely OK. This is crucial if we’re to deliver the wellbeing we so readily talk about.